From Russia, with love of numbers at Nashua school
By BARBARA TAORMINA Union Leader Correspondent
Elena Trikoz, a former chemical automation engineer, teaches math at the School of Russian Language with a program that combines traditional Soviet school practices with the latest innovations in math education. (Barbara Taormina Photo)
NASHUA -- On Saturdays, first-graders who take math classes at the School of Russian Language in Nashua delve into geometry and learn how to measure the perimeters of polygons, compare mass and volume, and calculate the area of geometric figures.
The classes are part of an elementary school program that combines new teaching methods with what teachers describe as the "proven techniques" of traditional Soviet school math.
"It's more complicated and more challenging than math in American schools," said Natalia Kaghashvili, who, along with Julia Stryhenko, co-founded the small school, which is tucked in an office park off of the Daniel Webster Highway.
They started the school back in 2009 with five or six children who met in Stryhenko's basement.
"We wanted to start something for our own children," said Stryhenko, who is originally from Ukraine. The goal was to create a program that would let their children preserve their knowledge of Russian language and their ties to Russian culture.Word of the new school quickly spread among friends, and friends of friends, within the Russian-speaking community of southern New Hampshire. Today, about 50 children take classes in Russian language, art, music and math, which was added two years ago partly in response to a shared concern among Russian families that math programs in local schools weren't challenging their children.
"When we were children, we had a very strong math program and we want our kids to have that," said Stryhenko.
Kaghashvili and Stryhenko grew up in Soviet schools that had a common curriculum with demanding standards that fostered logical thinking and analysis
"In Soviet schools there was a common, unified program that everyone followed," said Kaghashvili, adding that everyone had the same textbooks, took the same classes and there were no electives. Each night, students faced hours and hours of homework.
Although there were extracurricular activities, Stryhenko and Kaghashvili said, there was nothing like the sports programs in most public schools. Both women marvel at the amount of time, energy and money invested in high school football and basketball.
And both women say they grew up with a view of education that's different from what they have seen in American schools.
"Here, parents will ask their children, 'Did you have fun today in school?" said Stryhenko. "That isn't the question that Russian parents ask their children."
Kaghashvili recalled that, when she was in school, there wasn't much drilling in math class, but young children were required to memorize a lot of fundamental math facts.
"There was nothing entertaining about it," she said. "There were also a lot of word problems. We didn't do just mechanical things; we did things that developed logic."
And there were standardized assessment tests.
"We had pencil and paper tests, but there was no multiple choice," said Kaghashvili. "We could not just choose the right answer, we had to prove we knew the process."
Elena Trikoz, a former chemical automation engineer from Moscow, who made a career jump to education about 10 years ago, oversees the math program at the School of Russian Language. She teaches four math classes for children who range in age from 4 to 8.
For Trikoz, repetition and reinforcement are key strategies for teaching elementary school math, but she also continually challenges children.
"When I prepare my lessons, I know the different levels children are at, and I try to do something in the middle," she said.
Kaghashvili described Soviet math as a program based on a gradual system of increasing complexity. Children seem to rise to the occasion despite the demanding work.
"When kids know they accomplish something, they love it," said Kaghashvili who added Trikoz's students are the stars of their math classes at their regular schools.
But the teachers at the Russian School also acknowledge that their students are from families with highly educated parents who are willing to spend the time, energy and money in additional education for their children.
"Our situation is somewhat different," said Kaghashvili. "Parents are involved and work with their children at home. And we do not have any children with special needs like many classes in American schools."Both Kaghashvili and Stryshenko see the Common Core standards that are being rooted in schools throughout New Hampshire as a step up for public education. They understand that some families and educators oppose the reforms that establish a national set of grade-level standards for public schools in 45 states.
"As with any big program, people will resist and we have to consider their opinions," said Stryshenko. "I think the majority of teachers would agree there needs to be more rigorous standards. But those teachers need training and support for that."